Tuesday, April 23, 2019

TV: Lower Dullness trumped Higher Love

As she climbed the stairs to the stage, Diana Ross sang "Once we were standing still in time" (from "Do You Know Where You're Going To") and standing still in time might be an accurate description for the bulk of CBS' MOTOWN 60.


It should have been something, really something.  Celebrating the music MOTOWN RECORDS began supplying over 60 years ago should have amounted to some amazing music.

It really didn't.

There were a few bright spots (we'll get to them) but, for two hours, CBS largely wasted an opportunity.

Yes, Meghan Trainor was hideous trying to sing "You Can't Hurry Love."  No, she wasn't helped by the fact that before she started performing a brief clip from Ed Sullivan's August 25, 29165 broadcast of Diana Ross & the Supremes performing the song was played.  But she also wasn't helped by her wardrobe which was both too sparkly and too tight -- was she supposed to be an encased summer sausage?  But most of all she wasn't helped by the fact that she couldn't bob in rhythm to the upbeat song and she couldn't sing it either.

As bad as she was, there was also John Legend.  Meghan is at least a hit maker.  John?  He's had one number one hit ("All Of Me" back in 2013) and that's really it.  He's hit the top thirty two more times (2016's "Love Me Now" squeaked in at 23 and and 2008's "Green Light" struggled to number 24) and that's it.  That's not a hitmaker.  He can't sell albums anymore either.  His last million selling album in the US was 2006.  He's released six albums since then and none sold a million (two did manage to go gold).  But there he was, a past his prime, one-hit wonder, on a special celebrating lasting popular music and pretending he belonged.

He didn't.

Meghan?  Adam Ant was embarrassing on MOTOWN 25: YESTERDAY, TODAY, FOREVER.  Most people have forgotten it and the 1983 NBC special is remembered for so many other things.  The same with be true of this special.

John Legend was far worse -- he bombed.

He wasn't helped by an intro from MOTOWN legend, performer and vice president at one point, Smokey Robinson.  the green eyed hitmaker insisted that his all time favorite album was Marvin Gaye's WHAT'S GOING ON?

WHAT'S GOING ON? -- like Marvin himself -- is a piece of garbage.

There are a few good lyrics and melodies but, though credited to Marvin, he didn't write them.  Theft isn't something to be applauded.  And his album was no breakthrough.  Politically? In May of 1970, The Temptations had already released their hit commentary "Ball of Confusion."  Four months after that, Marvin would present the recording of "What's Going On?" to Berry Gordy.  MOTOWN had been dabbling in social commentary for years before that -- see Diana Ross & The Supremes "Love Child" and "Young Folks," Martha and the Vandellas' 1964 hit "Dancing In The Street," Stevie Wonder's 1968 cover of Billie Holiday's "God Bless The Child" and his 1966 covers of "A Place In The Sun" and "Blowing In The Wind," Edwin Starr's 1969 hit "War," The Four Tops' 1967 cover of "If I Were A Carpenter" -- In fact, WHAT'S GOING ON was not MOTOWN's first concept album or first song cycle album.  That honor belongs to The Four Tops' 1970 album STILL WATERS RUN DEEP.

But, as usual, a lot of history got swept aside to glorify Marvin Gaye -- if he hadn't been married to Anna Gordy, would he have even ever had a career outside being some lounge singer?

John felt the need to speak (considering his singing, he should have just spoken) and inform the audience that Marvin "dared to ask the big question."  He never told us what the big question was but presumably it wasn't anything anyone heard through the grapevine.  John insisted, "Your art can become a part of your activism and your activism can become a part of your art."

What activism?

Marvin was a drug addict, he was an abuser, he was many things -- including shot by his own father.  He was never an activist.  He didn't even promote recycling, for goodness sake.

Let's stay with abuser for a moment.  "Sanctified P**sy" is one of his songs, yes, but we're not talking about him being explicit.  We're talking about his well known reputation for being rough with women -- to the point of rape, as well as battering them.  It's not an industry secret and never has been.  Yes, there's one woman (who we consider a friend) who has the worst self-esteem in the world (maybe that's why she creates such memorable art) and refers to his assault of her as something other than assault.  She does that because she always had a low opinion of herself and her looks -- despite the fact that her two older sisters really are ugly -- not plain, ugly -- and she is beautiful, she still struggles with whether or not men ever find her sexual and appealing.  So she tells the story of a Marvin she'd never met before mauling her in public as a "Look how hot I was!" story.  It's  not.  And it's actually, the nicer of the many stories in the industry about Marvin Gaye.

Does it matter?

In most cases, no, not to us.  If he comes on the radio, we're not going to go into all of this.  If it's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," we'll note that Gladys Knight and the Pips did the song first and did it best and that'll be about it.  If someone's raving about his songwriting, we will try to pin them down on what he wrote and then correct them if it's a song he put his name to but didn't actually write.  Before we're called hypocrites -- as we were at a party last month when this topic came up -- we are aware that Rupert Holmes wrote the bulk of Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" -- she basically only came up with the first chord change.  Paul Williams wrote the lyrics and received credit but Ruper Holmes never received credit for writing the music.  We've never thought of her as a songwriter, nor do most people.  But if you're afraid we'll call out Marvin but not Barbra, don't worry, we'll call her out too.  Equally true, we've long called out Madonna grabbing credit for "Papa Don't Preach."  The song was written long before she ever recorded it or even saw it.  Her entire contribution -- made after the song was already finished -- was to change "The baby" ("will be okay, it's a sacrifice") to "Maybe" ("we'll be okay, it's a sacrifice").  That's it: "The baby" to "Maybe."  And she insisted on owning part of the publishing and getting co-writer credit on the song.  That's theft and it needs to be called out.

So let's stop pretending Marvin Gaye wrote some wonderful songs.  He appropriated credit, it's not the same thing.

And the abuser issue.  It's funny, Jennifer Lopez was on the special.  She wasn't live.  It was from her performance at The Grammys earlier this year -- her much criticized and poorly received performance.  For some reason, it was decided to include that, to include a lot of that.  So we got Jennifer performing bits of "Dancing in the Streets" (the only real acknowledgment of Martha Reeves in the entire special), "Please, Mr. Postman," "Money That's What I Want," "Do You Love Me," "ABC," My Girl" (flat out awful -- and when she tried to toss to the audience, they refused to play along by singing "I guess you say . . ."),  "Papas Was A Rolling Stone" and maybe "War."

Maybe "War"?

When Edwin Starr had the hit, the song went, "War! Uh! What is it good for! Absolutely nothing! Say it again!"  But with J-Lo it suddenly became just "Uh! What is it good for!"  What is what good for?  In 1970, Starr (and The Temptations who recorded it first) could say "War" but somehow, in 2019, Jennifer Lopez was unable to sing -- as were her back up vocalists -- the word "War."  That's rather sad and highly disgusting.

The Jennifer Lopez segment really was a low point -- on a broadcast with way too many low points -- but it did make clear that J-Lo was supposed to have covered Michael Jackson exclusively.  But The Grammys got nervous because of Michael's pedophilia being discussed at the time due to the documentary LEAVING NEVERLAND.

Should it have mattered?

If the point was to glorify the music of Michael Jackson, we don't think it should have.

But if Jennifer Lopez, during the performance, had made all the idiotic statements that John Legend made about Marvin Gaye, it would have mattered.  Michael's music endures and it should.  But there's a world of difference between praising his art and pretending that he was something to celebrate as a person.

But even if you set aside John Legend's idiotic editorializing, you were still left with his singing -- or his attempt to sing.  He went flat repeatedly and that wasn't disguised by the back up singers or the musicians -- both of whom were miked louder than John.  He even went off key on the "woah-oohs."  He didn't help himself by grinning like an idiot throughout the song (Note to John: "There's far too many of you dying" is not a smile line) nor by the hideous suit he had selected which looked like it was trimmed in pipe cleaners.

Fashion really wasn't presented strongly on the special.  We'll be kind and just note that until Thelma Houston showed up to sing her hit "Don't Leave Me This Way," no performer (except Stevie Wonder) was well dressed.  We were a half-hour in before another performer showed up knowing how to dress (Ciara who performed Rick James' "Super Freak" -- and performed it very well).

Cedric The Entertainer was billed as a host (as was Smokey Robinson).  He did better when onstage -- the bits where he was a disc jockey in the sixties went on too long and were never funny.  But, onstage, he basically led a singing version of NAME THAT TUNE repeatedly and he did that very well.

The shots of the audience were often done well too and we were really glad to see, for example, Valerie Simpson.  We wondered why she wasn't given a segment and then she was -- kind of.  After she was among those asked to stand (the others included Otis Williams, Claudette Robinson and Berry Gordy), they went to a filmed segment of Smokey, Mickey Stevenson and [Brian] Holland-[Lamont] Dozier- [Eddie] Holland with Valerie.

With Valerie at the piano.  While the men were gasbagging, Valerie picked up a few notes on the piano and everyone tarted singing.  She did this again and again throughout the too short segment.
The two hour special could have easily used a half hour of Valerie at the piano.  It would have made for a wonderful and riveting segment.

It would have also helped acknowledge the importance of women to MOTOWN -- not just as vocalists but also as songwriters.  Not only did Valerie herself co-write some of MOTOWN's biggest hits ("Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," "The Boss," "Surrender," "Your Precious Love," "You're All I Need To Get By," "Reach Out And Touch Somebody's Hand," etc.), but other women made songwriting contributions as well including Janie Bradford ("Money That's What I Want") and Pam Sawyer ("Love Hangover," "Love Child," "If I Were Your Woman," "I'm Living In Shame").  That really wasn't noted in the special.

Passings were noted but, again, women were largely overlooked.  Tammi Terrell, Teena Marie, Mary Wells, Syreeta Wright and Florence Ballard were noted  Gladys Horton wasn't.  Georgeanna Tillman wasn't noted. Marlene Barrow-Tate wasn't noted. Odia Coates wasn't noted. Patrice Holloway wasn't noted.  Barbara McNair wasn't noted.  Over 20 men were noted but so many women were ignored.

Also ignored?  MOTOWN specials.  We didn't get that.  A number of clips from various specials were noted but the two biggest specials -- in fact, MOTOWN's first specials in the sixties -- were ignored.  Diana Ross & The Supremes and The Temptations teamed up in 1968 for their TV special TCB (the top rated variety special of its year) and they re-teamed for 1969's G.I.T. ON BROADWAY.

MOTOWN 60 should have been so much more.  It should have been so much better.

Along with Ciara, Ne-Yo did a strong job performing "I Like It," "I'll Be There" and "All Night Long."  Diana Ross was excellent -- and she was excellent despite Smokey Robinson's three minute long intro.  As the audience gave her a standing ovation, the camera worked around to show that she was sitting next to Berry Gordy as she began singing "Do You Know Where You're Going To?".  She made her way to the stage and then did several Billie Holiday songs (LADY SINGS THE BLUES -- a Billie Holiday bio -- was MOTOWN's first film and Diana was nominated for an Academy Award for her strong performance).  She performed Billie's "Good Morning Heartache" and "My Man."  On the latter, she added a few more numbers to one line. "Two or three, four, five, six girls he has that he likes as much as me," she sang with a smile before ending the song with, "For whatever Berry Gordy is, I'm his forever more."

Berry then spoke and noted thanks to everyone who had helped make MOTOWN "a legacey of love for everybody."

It should have been so much more but blame producers Ron Basile, Chantel Sausedo and David Wild for what it was.  Especially blame Wild for it since he was also the writer.  If you're familiar with Wild's writing output at ROLLING STONE, you know he's lucky to have a job.

Can anyone explain to us why Suzanne de Passe -- not noted in the special -- wasn't the producer?  She started working with MOTOWN in the 60s, was pivotal to the success of The Jackson Five, she was nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing LADY SINGS THE BLUE (take that, hack David Wild), she's produced hours of TV including LONESOME DOVE, RETURN TO LONESOME DOVE, THE TEMPTATIONS, SMALL SACRIFICES, BUFFALO GIRLS, six MOTOWN specials, NBC's THE MOTOWN REVUE series, SISTER, SISTER, SHOWTIME AT THE APOLLO and much more.  She knows MOTOWN.  She knows TV.  She knows how to entertain.

Basile, Sausedo and Wild don't know how to entertain.  And, goodness, did it show.

de Passe would have given Marvin his due.  She would not have inflated his credit.  She -- like most viewers -- would have presented Stevie Wonder as MOTOWN's greatest singer-songwriter because that's what Stevie is.  Basile, Sausedo and Wild couldn't give him any credit but notice that the only parts of the special that worked besides Diana Ross, Ne-Yo, Thelma Houston, Valerie Simpson and Ciara were the multiple times Stevie Wonder was brought out to perform.  Whether it was "Sir Duke" or "Higher Love" or what have you, Stevie repeatedly delivered and repeatedly brought down the house.  This without anyone ever noting that the finest MOTOWN album of all time, TALKING BOOK, was a Stevie Wonder album or that his run of classic albums includes INNERVISIONS, SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE, HOTTER THAN JULY, IN SQUARE CIRCLE and CHARACTERS.  Had the producers realized what they had in a true artist like Stevie Wonder, the special might have been truly special.

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